"The wines coming out of Etna are some of Italy's most unique."
It must have something to do with living atop an active volcano—a constant reminder of one's own mortality—that gives the best wines from Sicily's Etna D.O.C a sort of haunted vibrancy, as if they too are living each day as if it might be their last.
The Etna DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, a classification used to signify and protect Italy's most important terroirs) can be found in Sicily's far-east corner, hugging the neck of Mount Etna—Europe's largest active volcano—like a shirt collar. Mount Etna is one of sixteen volcanoes in the world that is said to pose a high risk to life and property, according to the UN. On a good day it spews ash and steam, and on a bad day a lava flow can threaten to pave over the DOC's vineyard sites. It's an ominous place, one that makes the Jurassic Period seem as though it wasn't all that long ago. Even now, a dinosaur or two moping about at the foot of Mt. Etna wouldn't seem entirely out of place.
But as primitive as it may look, there's no mistaking that Etna is well into a high renaissance.
What Doesn't Kill You...
The vineyards that have managed to survive decades of volcanic eruptions and abandonment are—at well over 100 years old—ancient by European standards. Most of the continent's vines were destroyed by the Phylloxera epidemic in the late 1800s, and many were not replanted for decades after the devastation. Ironically, Etna's vineyards ultimately owe their resilience to the very thing that can—and has—destroyed them: Mt. Etna's volcanic soil, which is resistant to the phylloxera root pest.
The ancient vines surrounding the volcano are just one part of the region's draw, though—the soil, exposure, and altitude of the vineyard sites (varying between 2,000 and 6,500 feet above sea level) are what come together to form that little thing we call terroir. The Raphael and Michaelangelo of Etna's renaissance are the region's two principle red grapes: Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio. Both grapes find their ideal expression on the northern side of the volcano where the climate is more akin to that of Northern Italy. Summers are hot and dry, winters are cold and harsh, and the grapes see huge fluctuations in day and night temperatures. In other words, they work for it.
Etna Rosso brings together Nerello Mascalese's aromatic elegance and tannic structure and the relative brawn of Nerello Cappuccio (with the addition of up to 10% white varieties, as permitted by the DOC) to produce wines that find a mellow tune between the high-toned elegance of Burgundy and the rusticity and tannic structure of Barolo. The best Etna Rosso bottlings not only redefine our expectations of Sicily—once a hub for bulk wine and still known for its production of way too much Nero d'Avola—but have quickly claimed their place alongside Italy's most enigmatic wines.
Etna also does white wine exceptionally well. The DOC's main white grape is Carricante—a variety whose production can be traced back to the 9th century. Depending on the techniques employed and the age of the vines, Carricante and its sidekick in the Etna Bianco and Bianco Superiore bottlings, Catarratto, can birth wines that range from lean and salinic to concentrated and structured, with a baseline of intense minerality.
Rags to Riches
Though Etna's history as a winegrowing region dates back to the 3rd century and some of the modern day estates like Vini Biondi have been there since the 17th century, it has only recently gained significance.
Like the rest of Italy's southern growing regions, Etna's wine industry was a victim of extreme poverty. Just 40 years ago the DOC's vineyards were filled with figurative tumbleweeds; many of the growers had fled to find work and what remained was a dusting of locals making wine that never left the town.
It wasn't until the late 1980s when Giuseppe Benanti of Benanti—one of the region's standard bearers—brought on an oenologist named Salvo Foti to revive some of his family's forgotten vineyards. When Foti arrived in Etna there were less than 10 producers, many of whom were ripping up ancient vines to plant international varieties. But Foti, who grew up on Etna, sought to restore the region's ancient vineyards, eventually making wine for Benanti, Vini Biondi, Gulfi, and his own 'I Vigneri' label. His belief that the untapped potential of Etna lies not in simply growing wine on Etna, but growing Etna's wines, would come to be the driving ideology behind the region's renaissance. In just 30 years Etna's population of winegrowers has grown to nearly 70, and winemakers countrywide are clamoring for a chance to make wine here.
The Future of Etna
The recent flurry of importer activity, press attention, and foreign investment has catapulted the wines of Etna to the forefront of Italy's march of viticultural progress. What will come of this swift boom in production is yet to be seen. For now, the wines that are coming out of Etna are some of Italy's most unique. It's a region that reminds us that—even in this age of wine production where no stone seems as though it's left unturned—there's still plenty we have yet to discover.
Wines to Try
Vini Biondi Outis Etna Rosso Nessuno 2007
Classic Etna Rosso. Earthy and herbaceous with bright cherry fruit. Rustic with formidable tannins. Shows best with an hour or so to open up. ($28, find this wine)
Terre Nere Etna Rosso 2009
An excellent introduction to Etna reds. Lean, bright cherry fruit and earth. Easy drinking, but still tannic enough to require a little animal fat. ($15, find this wine)
Calabretta Etna Rosso 2001
An excellent value on classic Etna Rosso with a decade under its belt. Brick orange in color, earthy, mineral driven, and floral. Drinking in its prime now. ($28, find this wine)
Salvo Foti I Vigneri Etna Bianco 'Vinujancu' 2008
A brilliant wine from the master of Etna. Big forward nose of minerals, lemon oil, and musk. Lean and mean on the palate. Begs comparisons to Meursault. ($52, find this wine)
Cornelissen Contadino 7 NV
Lean, tart red fruit and rocks. Often has a slight fizz to it. Totally pure, with minimal manipulation. A bit more off-the-wall than the other offerings in this list. ($25, find this wine)
Romeo del Castello Etna Rosso 'Vigo' 2007
Mother-daughter winemaking team whose vineyards narrowly escaped ruin in the eruption of 1981. Very Burgundian nose of herbs, flowers, and dust. Great fruit density and balance on the palate. ($40, find this wine)
About the Author: Talia Baiocchi is a wine writer living in Brooklyn, New York. She is the founding editor of WineChap.com in the U.S., and writes a weekly series demystifying New York's restaurant wine lists on Eater.com. She contributes to the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications.